Christians celeberate a feast day called “Easter,” on which they honor a murdered son and his miraculous return to life through the power of the Father. This story reinterprets the much earlier, Babylonian myth of Osiris, in which Isis, ”the Giver of Life,” mother of the sun, and “oldest of the old,” restores Osiris to life, mates with him, and then begets a falcon-headed sun-god, Horus. Representations of Isis suckling her son were commonly associated with Mary and Jesus from the 5th century, A.C.E., onwards.
Jews celebrate a kind of renewal of life during Pesach, or Passover, and recall the time when the Destroying Angel “passed over” those houses whose doorways had been sprinkled with blood, but killed the firstborn sons of all others, giving Pharoh yet another powerful sign that he should release the Jews from captivity.
Blood and eggs feature prominently in both Easter and Passover. Christian children hunt for and devour eggs that a magic rabbit has hidden, and Jews place a roasted or hard-boiled egg, the Beitzah on the Seder plate to commemorate and mourn the sacrifices that they used to make in the destroyed Temple. But the Beitzah also symbolizes the joyful return of life at springtime.
A tradition that appears to predate Judaism and Christianity, whose traces have lingered in the Middle East, Asia, and Old Europe, is the honoring of women’s power to give birth, symbolized again by blood and eggs. Decorated goose eggs were found in a German grave that dates back to the 4th century. Lithuanians began to decorate and share eggs with one another at least as early as the 13th century.
Common motifs on these eggs are spirals, suns, teeth, trees, flora and birds. According to Lithuanian historian Marja Gimbutas, who pioneered archaeomythology, an interdisciplinary approach to scholarship that combines archaeology, mythology, ethnology, folklore, linguistic paleontology, and the study of historical documents, these symbols represent fertility goddesses worshiped by the people of ancient Europe.
Persians have exchanged red-colored eggs at the Spring equinox to celebrate No-rooz, or “New Day,” for at least 3,000 years. The holiday is rooted in Zoroastrian religion, which prevailed in Iran long before Islam.
According to Bede, the Northumbrian monk living c. 720 A.C.E., the oldest origins of Easter began in rituals for Eostre, or Ostara, (Northumbrian Old English: Ēostre; West Saxon Old English: Ēastre; Old High German: *Ôstara), a Saxon goddess associated with the Moon. In De Temporum ratione, Bede wrote:
The moon-hare was sacred in both eastern and western ancient practices.
When Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Holy Roman Empire, defeated the Saxons in 700s, all the months of the year were changed from their Latin names. April was called ”Osteranoth” in Frankish and Ostermonat in German. Jacob Grimm speculated that the German equivalent ”Ostern” derived from the name of an ancient Germanic goddess, Ostara, or Oestre.
Some scholars believe that Isis and Astarte are Egyptian and Syrian names for the same moon goddess whom the Europeans worshipped. Astarte, Asherah and Anath are the three great goddesses of Canaanite religion.
A goddess with a similar name is found on some Roman altar stones from the Lower Rhine in North-West Germany. These altars were dedicated to local mother goddesses, who frequently appeared as triple deities and were associated with fertility. Similar altars dedicated to goddesses with Celtic names occur throughout northern Italy, France, Spain, and Britain. Very close to St. Bede’s Easterwines monastery at Monkwearmouth there is an ancient Roman fort where many inscriptions are found on an altar dedicated to Astarte, the Syrian and Phoenician fertility goddess.
Fertility celebrations are found throughout ancient European and Mediterranean regions. The Saxons, the Irish, and the Persians all kept a movable feast on the first day of the week after the first full moon of the Spring equinox.
Bohemians also had a ritual on the day after Oestre Sunday, which was a “Moon-day,” in which village girls sacrificed the “Lord of Death” by throwing him into the water and singing,
Death swims in the water, spring comes to visit us,
With eggs that are red, with yellow pancakes,
We carried Death out of the village
We are carrying Summer into the village.
Ritualistically casting death into the river, the villagers celebrated the return of the growing season and new life, preparing for summer’s bounty with red eggs and sun-shaped and colored food.
“Oestre ”also is the source of our scientific term, estrous, from the Latin Oestrus and the Greek οἶστρος). The Oxford English Dictionary defines the estrus cycle as
the period of sexual receptivity and fertility during the reproductive cycle of most female mammals; the time of being in heat.
Lefthandofeminism likes Wikipedia’s version better:
The estrous cycle comprises the recurring physiological changes that are induced by reproductive hormones in most mammalian placental females. Humans undergo a menstrual cycle instead. Estrous cycles start after puberty in sexually mature females and are interrupted by anestrous phases or pregnancies. Typically estrous cycles continue until death. Some animals may display bloody vaginal discharge, often mistaken for menstruation, also called a “period”.
In The Left Hand of Darkness, all people of the planet Gethen experience estrus cycles, or periods of “kemmer,” which come and go. As Le Guin observes,
Consider: Anyone can turn his[sic] hand to anything. This sounds very simple, but its psychological effects are incalculable. The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be…’tied down to child-bearing’ implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be–psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk or choice to make. Therefore nobody here is as free as a free man anywhere else.
Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive.
Imagine how extraordinary our world would be if, instead of obediently rehearsing these polarities in the liturgies of the Jewish, the Christian, and the Muslim traditions, every year, we celebrated this time of year by considering the sexes as equals, as companions, as equally powerful and active agents.
What if we were to celebrate Eostre and the oestrus in Easter by recognizing our commonality with mammals, who, like us, give birth by virtue of the blood that softens our wombs and ebbs and flows in us, like the river of life? What if, instead of lording it over mammals and all other animals, or granting supremacy to those who do lord around, we celebrated our mutual dependence on one another and on the planet from which all life springs?
We should especially celebrate the oestrus, the gadfly that, by stinging, moves the more bovine among us out of the mud, where we are wallowing.
Let us also remember that the figural meaning of estrus and oestrus is “Something that incites a person to passionate, esp. creative, activity.” Let’s all be gadflies tomorrow and incite one another to passionate bursts of creative activity.
And really–to all of you who celebrate the holiday, Happy Easter!